Sean Baker is a writer, director, producer and editor who has made seven independent feature films over the course of the past two decades. His most recent film was the award-winning The Florida Project (2017) which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was released by A24 in the U.S. Among the many accolades the film received — including an Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe for Best Supporting Actor — Sean was named Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle.
His previous film Tangerine (2015) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won an Independent Spirit and two Gotham Awards. Starlet (2012) was the winner of the Robert Altman Independent Spirit Award and his previous two features, Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008), were both nominated for the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award.
His remarkable new film is Red Rocket. The audacious new film from writer- director Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine), starring Simon Rex in a magnetic, live-wire performance, Red Rocket is a darkly funny, humane portrait of a uniquely American hustler and a hometown that barely tolerates him.
I watched Red Rocket and I have to tell you it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
Enjoy my conversation with Sean Baker.
Alex Ferrari 0:03
Today we have returning champion, Oscar nominated writer director Sean Baker. Now you might know Sean from his film tangerine, which lit the entire independent film world on fire when it came out a few years ago, because it was shot entirely on an iPhone and got a major release. His next project after that was the Florida project, which got nominated for an Oscar. And his newest film is called Red Rocket starring Simon Rex. And I had the pleasure of watching Red Rocket a few weeks ago. And I gotta tell you, it's easily one of my favorite films of 2021. It is is Sean Baker of a film as you can get. The characters are vivid, it was shot beautifully on 16 millimeter film using anamorphic lenses. So this is why giant scope of a film on a very little budget, we get into the weeds on how we made this film with a 10 person crew during COVID. And all the things that you might think of that, you know, once a once a filmmaker is nominated for an Oscar they don't have to put up with, you know, hunting for locations and maybe stealing some shots and low budgets. Well that's not the case. Sean wants to tell his stories and he tells him the way he wants to say it. And that unfortunately sometimes is lower budgets so he was able to run and gun and make this amazing film. With little time and little money during the middle of a pandemic. It is a remarkable feat to say the least the performances are amazing Simon Rex should get nominated for an Oscar as well as the film and Shawn as well in my opinion, but let's jump in without any further ado, please enjoy my conversation with Sean Baker. I like to welcome back to the show returning champion Sean Baker. How're you doing, Sean?
Sean Baker 4:29
Hey, how are you? It's great to be back.
Alex Ferrari 4:32
I'm good, man. I'm good. Last time you were here. You had that little iPhone film that did okay.
Sean Baker 4:38
Alex Ferrari 4:40
It did all right. Um, but we're here to talk today. We're gonna go a little bit into your process. And we're also going to talk about your amazing new film red rocket, which I had the pleasure of watching a couple weeks ago and I was just of course floored by it. And it's so funny because I literally just moved to Austin. So I was out I was in Texas, and I was just like, wow, this is just another part of Texas. I did not know about
Sean Baker 5:06
Well Texas is so big. I mean, you talk to people in West and West Texas, and they have no idea what's happening over in East Texas. So, I understand, did you watch that AFS?
Alex Ferrari 5:16
No, I watched it at a press screening. There was a press screening. Oh, okay. Okay, I went to a press, I went to a press screening at it. And they're like, do you wanna see Shawn's new movie? I'm like, Yes. And I went in there. And it was it was a it's an experience, we'll talk about it. But for for everybody listening who might not know what you've done, how did you get into the business? What like made what drew you in?
Sean Baker 5:37
Well, I, I've wanted to make films since I was six years old when my mother brought me to the local library. And they were showing clips from the universal monster films. And I fell in love with an image from James Wales, Frankenstein, the burning windmill sequence At the end of the film. And I remember that night, the day before, I wanted to be a construction worker. And the next day, I was like, I want to be a filmmaker. So that's the way that happened. And I went through the cliche, you know, that that shooting Super Eight film until VHS rolled around, I'm showing my age right now.
Alex Ferrari 6:14
You me both brother, you, me both.
Sean Baker 6:17
You know, just just just taking in as much film at the time as I could, being in suburban New Jersey. So being exposed, you know, using the video store, essentially, as my, my education, making, you know, VHS films in high school, doing my yearbook, my video yearbook for my high school, you know, the geeky AV club thing, then I'm then going to NYU going to NYU. You know, I applied to USC, UCLA and NYU I forgot if I got into the other two, but NYU is like the one I really wanted to because to go to because at the time, you know, it was really Spike Lee and John moosh had made such an impact. And I was so I don't know, there was something that was that was telling me, you know, I'm already close to New York, I really want to embrace that New York indie thing that these guys have going on. So went to undergrad there. And during those four years, I got being in New York, you know, this was still pre internet, but I had access to a lot more towards in terms of repertory houses and Kim's video store. Yeah, and being exposed to not only much, you know, the greater world of independent film and discovering passive Eddie's was etc. But also foreign film barn film was made its impact. So going into NYU with like, aspirations of doing, you know, making robot cop or Die Hard down the line, you know, it turned into me wanting to make mystery train down the line, you know, like, by the end of those four years, and yeah, and then shortly after NYU, I pulled together enough money out shortly, I guess it was a few years. But we, we scraped together $50,000 by doing some corporate videos and commercials, enough to shoot my first film, four letter words, and 96 on 35 millimeter, actually, and it's being released this upcoming year finally restored, you know, it's not a very good film. It's a young, young movie. But it got me started, it took four years, you know, I was in my 20s Things were crazy. But, you know, I eventually it premiered at South by Southwest in 2000. And that was sort of my entry into that world. And, and yeah, and then I'll wrap it up really quick by saying that dogma 95 was really, really important at that time, and it made me shift my, I'd already, of course, was in it and wanted to be continue and really, you know, my goal was to become an established filmmaker, but that really changed my focus. And that's what led to us making takeout and I think ever since takeout. There's been sort of like, I've been finding my way in that world of exploring, you know, stories that you know, of communities of, you know, of subcultures that I'm not a part of, you know, that I that I wanted to, to to explore myself through these movies. So, and that has sort of been the through line ever since.
Alex Ferrari 9:26
But I just want to put this out there. I do want to see your Robocop and your diehard. If you want to remake them, I will be I'll be first in line to see your Shawn Baker's Robocop. Very interesting. Starring Simon Rex, obviously.
Sean Baker 9:39
Yeah. Because Verhoeven was like, that's the impact he had on me in high school, but then discovering his other films later and his earlier Dutch, you know, I guess, sex focused movies. You know, they were unfairly called sexploitation back in the day, but like films like you know, Turkish dilla and spiders actually had a major influence on red rocket. So all these years later, it was his other movies that that have had a direct impact.
Alex Ferrari 10:12
Yeah, no question. And and if you anyone looking at Robocop now it's just not just an action movie, there's so much commentary, so much commentary in a film like that.
Sean Baker 10:22
And I have my tickets bought for Benedetta already wrap house this weekend.
Alex Ferrari 10:27
That's awesome. Now I also remember watching the Florida project, which is your last film. And I don't know if I told you this, but I actually, I actually stayed in those hotels. Oh, yeah, not but as growing up as a kid, because I lived in Florida, and we would go to Disney World. And that's that row of hotels that you just you just park and go in and go out. And you wouldn't even realize what you know, I didn't even know that there was a subculture there. I just was a kid. So I was there. So it's amazing how you're able to capture these kinds of subcultures in a way and you shine a light on on subcultures that really don't get light shined on them at all.
Sean Baker 11:08
Well, in that case, it was actually crisper, gosh, who brought that idea to the table because he sent me an article about the children living in the extended stay motels in the shadow of Disney World. And I just found it incredibly compelling. And then also I didn't even know the term hidden homelessness. So it was something I was learning an issue that I was learning while while you know, developing this film and, and so, so just, I just wanted to give you a back ground of like how that came to be,
Alex Ferrari 11:39
Right. Now, how did you how did Red Rocket come to life?
Sean Baker 11:44
That was actually based on research we had done for a film I made before tangerine called starlet, which was also focused on the adult film world. And during a 10 years ago, when we were you know, making that film, we got to meet many people from needle film world and we realized that there was this archetype that existed men, usually male talent, who live off of female talent in and you know, exploited use them in the adult film world. So they don't represent all men in the adult film world. But there is this archetype even have this slang term applied to them suitcase pimp, which we use in the movie. And I have to say that, like, it was something that even being on the set of starlet 10 years ago, thinking, there's a whole other movie for, you know, that can be made based on one of these guys. And so it was about five years later, when we finished up Florida project, that we were entertaining a bunch of ideas. And that's when we said should we tackle this? Alright, let's start fleshing it out. And we fleshed it out. It took a few days, because we already knew these guys, and we had interviewed some of them. So the we had beginning, middle and end. And it was even when I actually thought about Simon for it, because it was during the days of vine, and he had a vine presence. And he was making he was entertaining the hell out of me. So I thought I even remember texting one of my producers saying and if we do make red rock, it's going to be this guy and I I texted them one of Simon's Vine videos, and they laughed and said, okay, cool. It's set. Now, that's unique casting. But then it was all put on the backburner. Because we had moved, we decided to move forward on another idea. And then COVID hit, and COVID shut down that idea because it was something that couldn't be made during a pandemic. And we pivoted back to red rocket, which was sitting on the backburner, and all it required was really just fleshing out because again, we had beginning middle and end broken down, we kind of knew we knew the character and knew the supporting characters. So it was really about finding our setting, and just getting this thing spit out on paper.
Alex Ferrari 13:56
So you so you cast it, Simon via vine, essentially.
Sean Baker 14:02
Yeah. And also, um, Joseph bought Joseph cons bodied. It's a small indie, by music video director, primarily music video director, but he's an indie isn't an indie filmmaker by the name of Joseph Kahn.
Alex Ferrari 14:16
He's a fantastic Yeah,
Sean Baker 14:17
Yeah. Yeah. And Simon had quite a substantial cameo in that movie. And I read I didn't you I forgot about, I forgot about this. There have been people who who alerted me that I did this. But on letterbox back when I watched Bodhi back in the day or a couple years ago, a few years ago, I actually wrote like, Can somebody give Simon Rex a dramatic role already? You know, and so I think that that may have been the one that really was like, you know, that made me that cemented the idea that I want to work with this guy. So um, and yes,
Alex Ferrari 14:54
So when you when so you when you're working when you're casting because you have some of the most impeccable casting Decisions of your generation of filmmakers honestly, like you pick up like there's no, there's no place that Simon Rex is on the list for this for this part, but yet he should get an Oscar nomination. There's no question he should get he's,
Sean Baker 15:17
Thank you. I agree.
Alex Ferrari 15:18
He's brilliant in this. He was like born to play this part. And I don't mean that in a negative way, because of the part of the he's not playing the nicest human being on the planet. Right? Right. What how he's able to bring that character to life. Can you can you give any tips on on your process of casting? Like, how do you make the decision? Because I'm assuming, you know, after your success with tangerine and Florida project, I mean, you probably get pitched constantly like, oh, this actor and this actor, and this is the this disguise or as a bigger box office? or this or that? What how do you?
Sean Baker 15:51
Yeah, I actually have returned emails to agents saying, Sorry, your actor is too famous.
Alex Ferrari 16:01
Which I'm sure they love. I'm sure they love that.
Sean Baker 16:03
But it's only me it's shooting myself in my foot every single time. But um, no, no, I love the fresh faces, I actually take that cue from Spike Lee, you know, Spike Lee, always, even if he put A listers in his films as the leads, he was always surrounding them with fresh faces. I think I saw Samuel Jackson for the first time in Jungle Fever, and being like, Oh, my God, who is this guy, thank you for bringing him into the talent pool. I mean, he's incredible. So that's what I look to do every time and also, I just, um, you know, I read, you know, regarding, you know, my, my first timers, I've just, you know, keep my eyes open, you know, I just keep my eyes open i st cast even when I'm not in current development, you know, Susanna son came about because we saw her at the Arclight Hollywood in the lobby, and she was coming in those glass doors while we were over near the ticket booth. And we looked over and saw her and just thought she had that, that that quality that can't be defined, it's that it quality, it's an aura, that energy that says I'm a star, and you want it you can see watching that person on the big screen for two hours, you know, and wanting to see that person on the big screen for two hours. So you know, you exchange information, you keep that person on file, and then you hope that everything comes together, they have the enthusiasm to do it, and they have the talent to do it. And I've been very lucky, where I've surrounded myself with these first timers who all have that.
Alex Ferrari 17:35
How do you I have to ask you, because the performances that you pull out of, of your actors, or the collaboration that you have with these actors, how do you approach directing actors? Because I mean, their performances from tangerine up until you know, just just your last year tired filmography but the last three films specifically, some of the performances you've pulled out, they get not they get nominated. Not that means anything but they're really good. How do you approach the acting, directing actors?
Sean Baker 18:04
Thank you. I mean, every every individual is different, even if they are experienced, you know, very, like well, like well, but will are like I consider my three leads actually experienced actors in Red Rocket because I didn't mention that. You know, even though I met Susanna son on the street casting I discovered after the fact that she already had an Instagram presence and the reason that she was in Hollywood is because she had just moved there as an aspiring actor. So you know, I consider her and Brielle rod who plays Lexie in the film, she's had a, you know, two decades of theater experience, and she was in a small role on Shutter Island. And then Simon You know, who's been in this world for quite a while, they're the experience actors, they're the ones who come with like, years of experience are not yours, but you know, they come with that. And then you have first timers who have all different levels of, you know, experience aspirations, you know, comfort levels. So each one is different, everybody's different and it's really just about becoming friends, being very casual, being transparent, making them feel comfortable becoming a family unit in which nobody is embarrassed about anything I do I do actually encourage improvisation in my films all the time. I love it. You know we have pretty much you know, we do have a fleshed out script and especially with Red Rocket because red rocket was shot in such a fast it was COVID and small, you know, small budget so we had very limited amount of time. So out of all my films, probably Red Rocket is the most scripted. With all those Mikey Sabre rants and everything, those are all but I still allow I want my my cast to improvise, and you never want them to feel put on the spot. You know what I mean? I can't you want them and never feel embarrassed about trying things and experimenting And so, you know, I have my incredible actors who are so incredibly brave and bold, they'll go in front of a camera and they'll try something. And if it doesn't work, who cares? It doesn't work. Let's go for an outtake and try something else. And, and, and getting everybody in that place where everybody's comfortable and feel safe. And red rocket was perfect for that, because it was like a small 10 person crew. Tiny we were a pod, we were very isolated. And it just allowed for that it was a good environment. And then, uh, one more thing I want to add, you know, since Florida project, I've been working with a coach, my wife and producer Samantha Quan. And she worked with the two children, or the three children on Florida project, but it was during our project that I told her, I have these, you know, the two moms I, I decided that I'm going to cast them with it's essentially first timers. So can you help me out the moms, and because Samantha's female, there's that that really helps as well, you know, they, they might feel more comfortable at first with another woman. And she's also very maternal. So there's, you know, it's it that that really showed me during Florida project that, Sam, Samantha brings a lot to the table there. And so with red rocket, I was able to give some of the first timers to Samantha and say, why don't you guys workshop? Why don't you guys try these scenes out? I'm focusing on this, tell me when you're ready to, for me to watch it, I would come in watch where they were going, give them tweaks, give them notes. And it was really a great day. So So Samantha has been very much a part of that new process?
Alex Ferrari 21:40
And is, are there any other tips that you can give about directing non actors? Because you've had a few of those are films over the years of neither new actors specifically, but but more like non actors of the people who just don't act?
Sean Baker 21:56
And yeah, it's always saying, Hey, if you don't feel comfortable, if the scripted dialogue is not rolling off their tongue, you, I'm told I'm never precious with any of the stuff we write, except if it's unless it's a really good line I'm proud of, or it's exposition. Sure, I'm okay with saying, put this in your own words, or how would you say it, especially if they're from that area, or part of the culture that we're focusing on? It really is invaluable? Because they'll bring stuff that you never would have they elevate your script, they make it more realistic, they they bring in slang that you didn't know about, there was plenty of that in Red Rocket, plenty of it. Like Britney Rodriguez, just just asking her in a moment saying this scene isn't there's something about this line that's playing a little bit like an East Coast, New Yorker wrote this line, can you help me out? And she would think about it for a little while, and then come up back with some ideas. And so there was that collaboration out? Should I give you an example from Russia? Be No way. Okay, cool. So when we Andrea, who is who plays her mother in the film, I'm talking about Brittany Rodriguez plays June, her mother is leandria played by Judy Hill, Judy Hill is talking to Simon and realizing that he has dropped his Texas accent. And in the script, it was just like, you know, where's your accent? Or where's your remember, go a very bland, boring line. And so in the moment, we just, I said, you know, I don't like this, it doesn't, it's not exciting, let's just bring some local color to it, Brittany anything. And Brittany was like, he sounds brand new. And I was like, perfect. Alright, leandria that's what you gotta say you so you sound brand new and stuff like that stuff like it those little, you know, that just that little, those little details, you know, add so much and, and that's what you get out of sometimes working with these, you know, the first timers who have a parallel life experience and can actually bring that to the table.
Alex Ferrari 24:03
Right! And and I love that you and you could tell in your films that you are not precious about the dialogue, because it just seems so natural rolls off the tongue so much. And you can just you know, as a director, you look at things you're like, okay, that either that was an amazing performance, or they're just kind of rolling with it in our in the moment. And you can tell that, especially in Red Rock, there was a lot of that going on in the background. But with with the input, a lot of the improvisation that's going on on set. What is your writing process? Like? How do you start writing a movie like Red Rocket?
Sean Baker 24:37
Well, each one's different. Each one is different, like this one was, I didn't even see Chris. I mean, Chris and I were basically zooming. Right and then we had a shared Google Doc. So it was one of those things and because we had broken it down years ago, and I already knew beginning middle and end is more about just like taking on these these major rants and Taking on the dialogue. And so, you know, we just write it out and share it with one another and give each other's notes. And, and yeah, so So in this case, it was very remote writing and a lot of writing in Galveston, Texas actually in my Airbnb, you know, weeks before we were actually shooting and but everyone's every every every approaches everyone's different Oh, the one thing I do want to the one consistency of all the my writing experiences is that we always have the end worked out in our heads before we even open up Final Draft ending is a very endings are very important for me. They really you know, at my favorite films have very impactful endings that keep you thinking as you're exiting the theater and interpreting and, and right sometimes writing your own ends. And I appreciate those movies. And so I always keep that in mind. I mean, I won't, I won't open up Final Draft until we have beginning middle and end worked out.
Alex Ferrari 26:04
Now, I always love asking creatives this what what do you do to tap into the zone that creative? Well, that we all have in? You know, we all have I always say we have our personal creative wells that we can tap into. And sometimes you're in the zone. And sometimes you're not in the zone. What is there something that you do in your writing process that you get into your mind for in a mind frame where you can then accept a muse, if you will, the Muse shows up and starts helping you.
Sean Baker 26:32
I wish I could say there there, there is something it usually it's usually a producer holding a gun to my head. Better get done now. So it's actually there's a lot of procrastination, a lot of napping, but I think moments of inspiration come where you're not least expecting it sometimes when you're in a movie theater watching somebody else's film where you're just like, now I got I got that figured out. Okay, I can't wait, you know, so. It's really just, um, you know, I'm sorry, yeah, I can't tell you one specific thing. It's more about like just allowing it to come and giving time and also cutting yourself deadlines, we have to get as human beings, we have to, or at least for me, I have to have deadlines. So in order in order in that crunch time seems to speed things up, you know, seems to speed up the creative juices that they get down during the crunch time. So it's really just about discipline, quite honestly, it's about discipline. And yeah
Alex Ferrari 27:28
Showing showing up in the Muse will show up with you.
Sean Baker 27:29
Yeah, yeah, essentially.
Alex Ferrari 27:33
Now, I you know, as directors, you know, there's always that one day on set, that the entire world is coming crashing down around you. You're losing the sun, the camera broke. There's an elephant running through your shot, something. What was that day on Red Rock? And how did you overcome it?
Sean Baker 27:50
Well, I realized I couldn't overcome it. So it was an acceptance during pre production, okay, right, I was going to have to accept all these freakin limitations. And I broke a chair, I never do that I'm not a violent guy. I don't get physical. But one day, that my, my, my, essentially, this whole scene that I had written would be impossible to do based on our budget. I can't tell you what it is. But it was a big set piece that required stunts and everything. And I'm just like, I realized at that point that I have no choice. I'm I locked myself into this budget of a type this type of movie. I'm these COVID. And everything else is, is imposing these limitations. And I lifted up a plastic chair and I broke it on the front porch. That was it. That was like the cathartic like, okay, I get that. Because from that point on it, we had disasters every three hours where we would like lose something or this and that, but it was it was chill, it was like, we're not gonna freak out. Because we realize we do not have the money. And we do not have the time to throw at problems. So instead of tackling those problems, we'll pivot and go another direction, and then all the serendipity and all these happy accidents started coming our way. So every day even though there was like a problem, every three hours, there was also a miracle every three hours. So I was every day I was getting these miracles where I was like, Oh my God, that happened today. Like that happens. The whole thing with the train. And the proposal that big scene was of course, it was timed. We knew it was coming, but we only had one chance to do it because the train came in once a day. We had 20 minutes prep, and like things just worked out. So wonderfully in that moment, like the conductor was blowing his horn at the perfect moment that it would complement the dialogue and the scene. So a lot of the gifts from the film gods came our way as soon as I was open to them.
Alex Ferrari 29:57
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. You know, we're used to, were you essentially running and gunning, like an EMG crew almost sometimes. I mean, there was obviously a plan for your day. But you pivot, you're like, Okay, we're gonna go do this. Now let's go and you kind of come up with it on the fly almost
Sean Baker 30:20
Yes, there was a lot an incredible amount of running and cutting it felt like a gorilla film making from well, I guess you could say it was like, very much like tangerine. We were just on the street. And we're like, oh, this dialogue scene. We're not feeling this right now. So let's just do this instead. Or like, you know, let's just, let's just follow Mikey on the bike for three hours, see what happens, you know, um, you know, there was a lot of that a lot of stealing scenes, you know, meaning that we didn't always have permits.
Alex Ferrari 30:49
I was gonna ask, I was gonna ask you that. It seems like when you're watching the movie, and you basically have the run of the town, but I'm assuming like, they had to, like, just kind of grab some stuff here and there that did they technically a lot of it
Sean Baker 31:03
A lot. And you know, it's as long as you do it safely. There's no problem with that, you know, of course, against the law. So, you know, we were, we were always doing it safely. And we were, and I think we just embrace that spontaneity. We were saying there's, there's improv in front of the camera. So Why can't every improv behind the camera. And that's great. I love that line. I love and also drew Daniels and his team are just, you know, they're just they're geniuses. I end up back that they pulled that off a four person camera crew pulled off those images. Yeah, Drew Daniels, you had a first AC, a second AC and a gaffer grip, meaning one person doing both gaffing and gripping Chris Hill who worked on Zola recently as well. He's amazing. So those four guys, and then you have the sound? Yeah, when you had our sound one a one man. Sound team. Alex.
Alex Ferrari 31:58
He did the mix mixing and booming at the same time.
Sean Baker 32:01
Yep. Yep. And then you had my sister who is Stefanik. And she is the production designer on the film. And then every other role, which is only four right? Because those are six people. And then you have four others making a crew of 10 the other four members were just producers wearing many, many hats, and they were all wearing them so well. I mean, like, you know, I'll give you an example. She Cheng's. Oh, who is actually in the film? She plays Miss fan at Arizona. Hello, what? She's wonderful. Yeah, well, she's also doing continuity while acting. And she's also doing costume design. And she was also responsible for, you know, a little bit of transportation here and there. So you know, you can see like, how much everybody is given their all
Alex Ferrari 32:47
It was an indie movie. It was it was it truly wasn't a new movie. And what I love about your career is I've been following it is that you know, after success of tangerine, and then of course, after Florida project, you can easily go down, the bigger budget roads, I'm sure they've been offered, those kinds of films might have been offered to you. But you get you really still want to stay in the world that you have 100% control over and explore stories that might not be, you know, doesn't have a superhero in it.
Sean Baker 33:15
Yeah. Yeah. You know, I just I know, I know, it's tempting. You know, I know, it's definitely tempting. Sure, I'm sure there's a monetary purposes. You know,
Alex Ferrari 33:27
The, the checks must be insane.
Sean Baker 33:29
Yeah, that's the big thing that I'm, I'm always conflicted about, like, should I make my life easier and make a film for a studio or more, you know, go to a series, but I've been starting to work in commercials, which have been really helped. That's like, my side hustle, which is like, my main bread and butter. And even if you get one spot a year, it's gonna pay you a lot better than working in indie film. But then on top of that, but it's more than that. I just, it's about like you if, you know if you if you if you? Yeah, I'm the type of I'm so neurotic. And it's like, I just want to I just want to sleep at night, you know? And not beat myself up by you know, I feel like I you know, I want to tell personal stories, I want to tell I want to films take a long time they take over two years, you know, you put all of your energy all of your heart into them. So why not tell it make the movie you want to make? And so I look at the I look at the, you know, the filmmakers that I admire, who had personal visions, and each film is different and each film is unexpected and, and yet they stayed true to their vision. The germ whooshes you know PGAS Spike Lee's you know, they these these these are the people who molded my career and and so I just no follow I follow their path.
Alex Ferrari 34:52
Fair, fair enough. Now, do you do you rehearse with your actors?
Sean Baker 34:57
Yeah, yeah, we do. We do. sometime not too much. I don't I don't like to over rehearse. I think that that's dangerous. Sometimes with first timers, you want to over rehearse it all comes down to the all comes down to the individual. And yeah, and as I mentioned earlier with Samantha Kwan, she's been wonderful now because sometimes it's not really for me, but it's more for the actors just to make them feel comfortable, you know, so just doing workshops and doing repetition of the scenes is I don't even have to see them all the time. As long as they're just they're doing them. Yeah, but the rehearsals for me, it's usually just, it's just about, I've already been, I'm already confident my actors can pull it off. They're already 95% there. So it's, my rehearsals are about just tweaking and maneuvering and guiding. So yeah, I do
Alex Ferrari 35:50
Now, I have to ask when you pitch this project assignment, and you sent him the script and the role like cuz this is a this is a challenging role. And it's a very exposing role. And in many ways, did he kind of was he hesitant or he's like, Oh, I'm so it.
Sean Baker 36:10
Who's pretty much all in? I mean, you know, he, he did. I honestly don't remember many of our early conversations, except for the fact that we just like he was on board, he was excited. And we we discussed the character discussed sort of the character traits that I saw in the Mikey Sabres that I had met and said to him, you know, this is like, you know, you're going to be playing a manchild here. You're gonna, you know, and all of those characteristics that come with the suitcase pimp and, and he had watched some of the interviews I had done of some gentleman from that world, so he but he didn't watch too much. He was like, I don't want to do a carrot. I don't want to do an impersonation. But I got the vibe, I got the Energy Plus he said, I you know, I've been in Hollywood for like the last three decades, I can pull from a lot of that I can pull from the narcissistic sociopathic jerks from the industry, and really use that. So I think he used that quite honestly. And again, yeah,
Alex Ferrari 37:16
You mean to tell me there's egos in Hollywood and, you know, stop it. Now, do you? Do you ever storyboard Do you shot list? Or do you just kind of flow with it on the day?
Sean Baker 37:27
I don't storyboard simply because I can't draw. And I haven't had the budget to hire sorry. But I've storyboard it on spots, commercial spots, and I really like I like it. But I also just, like, just just, you know, I, I'm my own editor, I edit all of my film. So I always have my editing hat on all the time. So when I'm, I'm shortlisting, I'm, you know, I do shortlist, especially on a film like Red Rocket in which we've had to, we had to run and gun so that, you know, sometimes it's a week before, sometimes it's a night before, you know, where I'm sitting down with my producer. And we're figuring out all the coverage of the scene. And sometimes with my DP as well, like how we're going to cover this and, and so it's it, even though there as I mentioned earlier, there is improv behind the camera. There also is a control behind the camera and we know how we're going to, you know, expect especially if it's a controlled scene, and there's a set piece Yeah, we will have it worked out. And then there are other scenes, like say, the sabotage moment at the end of the movie, in which you have to profess to seasoned actors in there and the rest all non professionals are first timers. Sorry. First timers, I don't like using the word non professional.
Alex Ferrari 38:41
Because they were professional first timers.
Sean Baker 38:45
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Um, we were in a tiny room together, and there's a lot of chaos. And in that moment, I was like, you know, it's best just to do what they call hosing down. So Drew, you're gonna hose down every we're gonna do multiple takes, where you're just all over the place, and I'm not going to tell you where to go. You just go where you want to go. Or sometimes I'll, I'll guide you but you know, it's more about just being as spontaneous with the handheld camera as the actors are being in the moment. And so that there's that but then there's also the very controlled, you know, I think you can see with red rocket, we were pulling a lot from the controlled cinema of Spielberg with you know, Sugarland Express and Bill moose, Sigmund. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So we have dollies, we have very controlled camera moves, very controlled framing. And so it's really about it's, it's, yeah, it's about mixing it up and finding a way.
Alex Ferrari 39:38
Yeah, it was it wasn't it wasn't like you just it was all handheld the entire time there was very, it had a very Sugarland Express vibe to it. That was a grid with think about because it did have that kind of control vibe, but yet it still had that kind of on the moment. EMG documentary five almost sometimes as well. And you just said if I'm not mistaken, you shot this on film right?
Sean Baker 40:00
Yes, we did. Primarily, I mean, there was some night scenes that had to be shot digitally because of low light. And then we had to do a tremendous amount of treatment in post for it to match the 16. Which I think you know, my incredible colorist Arnold at photochem did wonderfully. But yeah, super 16 I'm sorry. 16 anamorphic. So we were using anamorphic lenses for 16 that haven't is very rare in VR making. Yeah. I think the lenses we actually used from what I know and I might be, I might I don't know if I'm I still I haven't gotten confirmation on this. But I think we are the only feature to have used these phantom vision 16 And a Morphix. They've been used primarily on commercials and music videos and fashion films. But but we were able to capture a look with this that I think is very different from the average 16 millimeter look, it's a real throwback, it has this the proper scope of like a, you know, a Hollywood film in some ways, yet, it's still very gritty. The way it captured that landscape, you know, we needed that 235 aspect ratio to do that. And Drew Daniels is so fast on 16 that he would have a setup ready to go before I knew it. And usually he was waiting on me you know, on it's usually on a set it's like how long is camera going to take or? Sound? Yeah, yeah, Andrew would just look at me he's like, I'm waiting on you. I'm waiting on you did.
Alex Ferrari 41:34
Now, there's another part of this movie that you have forever changed the meaning of instincts. Bye bye bye. For me forever and ever and ever. Because it's a no win. Win Win win because I think it's in the trailer too. Right? They use that
Sean Baker 41:53
Alex Ferrari 41:54
It's they use it so when I saw it in the trailer, I'm like, Okay, this is gonna be a lot of fun. But then as you use it and the way you use it in the movie, is it's the only song to use right?
Sean Baker 42:05
And yeah, well you know we have so we have music coming out of radios and that big puddle of mud song which actually costs a lot for the strip joint but besides that yeah, no Nsync's bye bye bye
Alex Ferrari 42:19
Is the score is the score Yeah, so there was no there was is there any reason why you didn't want to fill it in with some score or other music?
Sean Baker 42:26
You know what I haven't used the score ever actually and I even though I love soundtracks I some my favorite films have incredible lush wall to wall soundtracks. My subject matter I'm usually you know, I It's hard to go with with the overly scored thing is something I you know, I try to avoid this because it's, it's what will age the fastest with your films, I think scores age the quickest. And then on top of that, is that manipulation, it's a very blatant manipulation that it comes with scoring. And these days, we're, I think films are kind of overly scored. And I don't mean to slam any movies, but I mean, like, the constant strings, I get, we get it.
Alex Ferrari 43:10
I know, I need to be sad here. I need to be excited here. I get it
Sean Baker 43:14
Yeah, this is how you should feel. And I that's the last thing I want to do. I want to you know, present, you know, a very objectively my stories and characters and without judgment. So So I want I want the audience to, you know, to I want to allow the audience to feel what they are feeling without manipulating so. So, you know, the closest I ever came to a score was I think in starlet where I kind of had a repetition of, of one track by an artist by the name of manual. And, and that was like a consistent repetition to the point and it was ambient, it was an ambient track. So it became sort of a score, but I've been avoiding that with my work and I don't know whether that'll change soon.
Alex Ferrari 43:58
Okay, sure. Yeah. Now and when you were editing cuz I've been an editor for 25 years, so I know that I know how the process of cutting it goes. What is your process as far as like, you know, do you just do a rough cut? Or like you just like assemble it all? Are you What did you cut on by the way did you cut on what did you
Sean Baker 44:16
We put on Adobe Premiere
Alex Ferrari 44:19
Oh okay, so yeah, so you know, do you jump in and out of color you know to see if things work out what is your process
Sean Baker 44:24
Well are are wonderful colors so I mentioned earlier our our Arnold, he gave us a lot that kind of worked universally. Okay, good, but so I didn't have to worry much with color. But then, um, I am kind of, I'm kind of crazy. I go right to a fine cut. That's my that's my Yeah, I know. It's weird. I don't do an assemble. I don't do a rough. I don't even I don't even move on to the next scene until the scene that I'm tackling is polished and I'm talking polished. I mean, tight. Yeah, yeah, no, I'm even doing sound design on that on that scene before. Moving to the next scene. So tell you the truth. I don't know whether the movie works as a whole until the last day of the edit. Until I've like locked the fine picture, the fine cut. And so, um, yeah, it's kind of nerve wracking for my producers especially and for me, I'm just like, well, I lose my mind. I'm, every post production is been a little difficult. I've been getting better, but I go into that whole like living, you know, nocturnally I become a vampire. I, you know, it's it's it's a few months of insanity. But, um, but yeah, it's something that I find necessary because it's like my I put my signature on it. I find my film ultimately in post production. And it's like, it's like 50% of my directing in a way so. And you know what, these days I have to say, with Florida project, I've learned a lot about what I can do in post like we're living in a day and age where you used to say Never say you can fix it in post because you can't now you can. Now there's a lot you actually can do there is and I'm doing a lot of cleanup. I'm doing a lot of split screens and visible split screens. I'm doing mats that you would never see but stuff that is really allowed me as a director to even be directing further and post and manipulating even for timing of performance sometimes and so that's that's been really like this new it's brought it's made editing fresh for me again.
Alex Ferrari 46:29
Yeah, it's kind of like what Fincher Fincher LA. He's just days and weeks and months. Yeah, exactly. That's like doing split screens, changing performances, adding one performance from here and another performance from there and mixing different takes and like really, you're directing you're still directing at that point.
Sean Baker 46:44
Exactly. I watched the manque. DGA q&a he did and he said that almost every frame of that film was manipulated to some degree in post and, and that's incredible. You know, I and my, I was doing so much of that with red rocket, you know, cleaning up little things in here and there. Like for example, with red with donut hole, which is almost supposed to be this. It's supposed to be otherworldly. It's supposed to be almost it could be seen as as Mikey's fantasy, you know, just doesn't, it's not totally based in the real world, I'd be cleaning up stuff that just, you know, just made that, that that space, less congested and prettier. So I would take away you know, electric cords, I would take away a sign I didn't like, you know, and so this is that's possible these days. And it's really I don't know it's inspiring for me because it's like a new way of filmmaking and,
Alex Ferrari 47:38
And, and I see a sense of theme with the donut shops in your tangerine, which is no longer a donut shop.
Sean Baker 47:48
I think it still is it did change
Alex Ferrari 47:51
And they change it because last time I drove by it was closed and then
Sean Baker 47:54
When did you buy it like a year ago? Oh, no, no, no, open its tray. Whoa,
Alex Ferrari 48:01
Oh, Trados donuts? That's right. That's right. Yeah, yeah, that Danny did something there.
Sean Baker 48:06
Yeah. So um, you know, I am going to disappoint you now because I wish I could tell you that the that doughnut hole was written in the script, but it was actually something found during pre production and worked into the movie, we had written it for a food truck outside of the refineries that strawberry would be working at. But when Alex cocoa one of my great producers, and I were driving past donut hole and groves, Texas, which is right next to Port Arthur, we saw this, we saw this incredible donut shop called donut hole with like, right next to the refineries with the perfect colors and this great parking lot. And, and, and this, this little wink that it does to one of my previous films, and maybe even the sexual connotations that come from, you know, the doughnut hole. Exactly. Everything seemed to work so wonderfully that we were like, This is a gift from the film gods and we better accept it.
Alex Ferrari 49:07
That's awesome. Now I'm gonna ask you a few questions ask all my guests. What advice would you give a filmmaker trying to break into the business today?
Sean Baker 49:13
Yeah, it's a very, you know, I It's it the the industry is changing all the time, and right in front of our eyes. So it's so hard to the advice that I would have given maybe even five years ago has changed it. It really you have to decide on what you want to do. Number one, do you want to make feature films? Do you want to make a series Do you want to you know, there are different ways there. There's so many different avenues these days, web series, etc, etc. But I think what's important is just to get started is just to get going in some way or another work in some aspect of the industry. I mean, for a long time. I was doing everything I could do work doing corporate videos, editing wedding videos, just so that I could actually have practice. And at the time, yeah, you're beating yourself up saying, Oh, wow, this is I feel like I'm so isolated outside the industry, but But you are practicing your craft. And that's very important to keep practicing your craft. And then also, don't wait. That's another thing, that's the biggest thing for me, if you're gonna make a feature, don't wait, you know, meaning the tools are there. Now to do it, you can pick up your iPhone, you can shoot a film, you can edit it around at home on premiere, and you can present it to the world and see whether the world accepts it. Yeah, you may want a $50 million budget, but let's be realistic, that's not going to come right away, you're gonna have to build to that. And I and I always remember my a friend of mine, from way back in the 90s said, I don't want to make my first feature until you know, I have the $20 million to do it. Right. And unfortunately, that guy still hasn't made a film. And that's that that always is like, you know, I had to make these scrappy little movies. You know, my first film tiny little thing I shot my second film takeout that I co director was shooting. So we made that for $3,000 on a mini on mini DV. And, you know, that's being you know, that that's now? Well, it's being restored and put out into the world next year again, and so, you know, so yeah, yeah, it can be done. Just do it and do it. Yeah.
Alex Ferrari 51:32
Just Just go basically just just be Nike, just go do it. That now um, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?
Sean Baker 51:43
Oh, gosh, I think one thing that I'm still learning is just that Carpe Diem, or, you know, just live in the moment, to appreciate the moment to be full of gratitude, you know, as human beings where we sometimes, you know, fall into the pity party thing we sometimes like, compare ourselves to other we always compare ourselves to others we have MB. But you know, you know, I, I'm, I feel that, you know, it's taken me a while, but I just want to like live in the moment and appreciate it and be happy about you know, where you are, I think that that's an important thing. And it's something I'm yeah, I hope I answered that.
Alex Ferrari 52:22
Perfectly fine. That was great. And three of your favorite films of all time.
Sean Baker 52:27
Oh, you know, it changes all the time. Sure. My top three but uh, but I I always look at Lars von Trier as the idiots which was like, I think dogma number two, as something that just is inspired me so much and continues to inspire me. So the idiots Harold and Maude, I think you can see Harold and Maude over Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And then just how Ashby in general in my films. And then, um, Chang Dong Lee's Oasis is such an incredible film that's underrated because a lot of people know Chang Dong Lee's films he made after Oasis, but I think people should go back and, and watch oasis. It's such a bold film that would never be made in this country at this time. And yet, I think is a necessary film and a film that really is profound. So So Chengdong Lee's oasis.
Alex Ferrari 53:22
And where can people see your film? And when is it coming up?
Sean Baker 53:25
Well, thank you for asking. A24. Is is is starting a limited run on the 10th of December so it'll open up in New York and Los Angeles on the 10th in a few select theaters, and then the next weekend, start to roll out into other cities. So you know, I would just say check a 20 fours website and Check local listings but it just let you know though, it's a it's a it's a an exclusive theatrical run, which I'm so happy about and so thankful to a 24 for allowing this in a day when you know there's a lot of day end dates and a lot of you know a lot of streaming titles that are just going directly to home video. This is what we shot this for the big screen is as you can tell we really wanted this to we I know it looks great on the big screen because I got to see it at the new Beverly last night on 35 millimeter and and so I hope people you know if they feel comfortable and you know if they feel safe to go to the theater see it on the big screen and it I think you know and yeah, that's all guy but I truly I truly hope people are able to see this on that big screen.
Alex Ferrari 54:43
And I second that because I did see it on the big screen and it is it is like for 16 millimeter film is part one of the more epic epically shot 16 millimeter film even super 16 but 16 millimeter films I've ever seen, especially projected is gore. It's absolutely stunning and gorgeous to look at. And you really do feel like you're there. So, Shawn, I truly appreciate you being on the show. I wish you nothing but continued success. I'm sure the film's gonna do very well. I hope Simon gets that Oscar nod. Because God, wouldn't that be amazing if he did.
Unknown Speaker 55:17
But we're even in the discussion is like, when the very fact that we even made this film is a win for us. I remember when we were going to can it was like we already won just by being here. So we're in a very good place, and however it plays out. It's this gravy at this point.
Alex Ferrari 55:33
Yeah, congrats, my friend. You're welcome back at any time for any of your feature films. So I do appreciate you. And thank you for all the inspiration that you've given filmmakers around the world because I hear constantly Well, you know, Shaun Baker did tangerine. And I mean, you could just grab an iPhone, I hear that every day. And it's and it's so there's a lot of inspiration you put out there. So even though while you're doing your work, you are inspiring another generation of filmmakers out there. So thank you again for all you do my friend.
Sean Baker 55:59
That's nice to hear. Thank you very much.
Alex Ferrari 56:02
I want to thank Sean so much for coming on the show and dropping his knowledge bombs on the tribe today. Thank you so much, Sean, not for just coming on the show. But for the continued inspiration you give the entire independent film community. Thank you again, sir. If you want to check out his new film Red Rocket it is opening in theaters today, December 10. Exclusively my answer will not be available anywhere online until after the new year. So I implore you guys if you want to check out an amazing independent film, and now you know the backstory of how it was made, check out red rocket. If you want to get links to anything we spoke about in this episode, including links to tickets to go see red rocket head over to the show notes at indiefilmhustle.com/531. And if you haven't already, please head over to filmmaking.podcast.com SUBSCRIBE and leave a good review for the show. It really helps us out a lot. Thank you again so much for listening, guys. As always, keep that hustle going. keep that dream alive. Stay safe out there. And I'll talk to you soon.
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